DRAWING after twice leading against St Johnstone would, just a couple of weeks ago, have cranked up the criticism of Hearts and their manager, John McGlynn. That this 2-2 draw was readily accepted by supporters is down to a change in team dynamics. McGlynn’s side is exciting once again in a 4-4-2 formation. Two wingers and two strikers are rousing fans, and one striker in particular is thriving.
John Sutton is the focal point of Hearts’ forward line again and is performing the role to a tee. He nodded the opening goal, his head flick created Hearts’ second, he linked with Gordon Smith, he held the ball up and he won every aerial challenge. Basically, he just tortured the makeshift St Johnstone defence all afternoon. When crosses from said wingers swung into the penalty box, Sutton won them. Even sandwiched between two defenders, he still won them.
His display in Perth showcased every one of his strengths. It also underlined why Hearts fans had been calling for his inclusion for weeks before he was reinstated to the starting line-up against Aberdeen last week. The change to 4-4-2 suits Sutton perfectly and allows McGlynn to get the most from one of his most experienced players. All round, everyone seems happier.
“The one boy David McCracken probably wouldn’t have wanted to face after coming back from a fractured cheekbone was John Sutton because he’s so good in the air,” – the words of St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas, who asked McCracken to play four weeks after surgery simply because he had no alternatives. Frazer Wright, Steven Anderson and Dave Mackay were all unavailable through injury or suspension. So McCracken partnered Tam Scobbie, a left-back to trade, in central defence. Both were owned by Sutton.
“It was a very hard-earned point and it was good to see John getting a goal,” said McGlynn. “He also had a good flick on when Andy Driver came in at the back stick to score our second. These are things you want your players to do.”
Sutton executed a precise downward header from Driver’s floated free-kick to open the scoring on 14 minutes. Less than two minutes later, Marius Zaliukas succeeded only in glancing Gary Miller’s right-sided cross into Rowan Vine’s path for a close-range equaliser. Hearts were attacking at will in the first half but, with Andy Webster already carrying a virus, were denied Darren Barr for the second period after he injured a shin in a tackle with Patrick Cregg.
Perhaps unexpectedly, that swung the game in St Johnstone’s favour. The second 45 minutes was mostly played in Hearts’ half, although Smith sent a clear scoring opportunity wide minutes after the restart. Unsurprisingly, it was created by Sutton’s headed knockdown. “It was a great knockdown, Goggsy was there and I think everyone on the Hearts side of the stadium thought that ball was going in,” reflected McGlynn. “He probably hasn’t connected as well as he would’ve liked. If we had gone 3-1 ahead with a two-goal cushion, it might have been enough.” Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald had denied Peter Pawlett in the first half and his contribution was vital as St Johnstone pressed forward relentlessly. He produced another excellent save from Pawlett and Callum Paterson blocked Liam Craig’s attempt to score the rebound. Then Kevin McHattie cleared Steven MacLean’s effort off the Hearts goal line as the visitors found themselves under concerted pressure for the first time in the game.
They cracked on the hour mark when Murray Davidson’s incisive run into the penalty area ended with a low ball across goal for the unmarked MacLean to tap into the net. Hearts appealed in vain for offside as the striker, previously on trial at Riccarton, sprinted off to celebrate. “We tried to win the game putting Dale Carrick and Arvydas Novikovas on as subs,” said McGlynn. “We haven’t had a great record here so a point in Perth is not the worst.”
Not when there are clear signs that Hearts are a much more threatening prospect since the change to 4-4-2. “Personally, I hope it’s the way forward for us,” said Driver. Like Sutton, he produced his finest performance of the season so far at McDiarmid Park. “As a wide man, it gives you a couple of more options further up the park. If you’re under pressure it means a ball into the channel is on. Hopefully, if we keep the results going the way they are, we can keep playing that way.
“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked like scoring more goals and we’re getting chances. You’ve got to single out Gordon Smith’s work rate. You can play two strikers up there and, if they don’t work, it’s no use but Goggsy is running the channels and closing down. He’s been a highlight over the last couple of games. I know he missed that chance in the second half, but even Ronaldo will miss a chance sometimes.”
Hearts are now creating so many chances that they can half joke about missing one. A quite remarkable change in just a couple of weeks.